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IRVINGTON – He started his life digging ditches in reform school, punishment for having escaped.
It took just one visit to get the message.
At eleven years old after a year inside, he knew he didn’t want to go back.
As a teen, he worked in the local cotton mill.
Originally from Thomaston, Georgia, David Lyons came to Irvington in 1971.
“Here I am,” he said, on Springfield Avenue. “My mother taught me, my grandmother taught me, my aunt – a lot of women – they taught me – all of us [my great grandmother had 13 kids] – the same thing. And it’s simple: help people. Help people and don’t care about what people say. If they’re not clothing you or housing you or feeding you, don’t care about what they say. So it wasn’t a jump for me to do this.
“I’m one of them, it’s in me to help them,” he said, with a nod to the street, as he prepares to publish his memoir: Ward Councilman: Confessions of an Honest Politician.
It’s been a local life. Politics at street level. Skin of his teeth wins against the machine his whole career.
Public activism and a tour of duty as president of the local tenants association led Lyons to a bid for the North Ward Council seat in 1996.
It was a four-person race for a vacancy.
Running on a platform of lower taxes and improved police response, he pounded on the door of every eligible voter in his ward.
He was watching television on Election Night when his equally politically active wife told him he won.
“You’d better get down there,” she advised.
He’s been down there ever since, the mainstay of Irvington politics for the last two decades plus, every reelection encounter a dogfight that somehow he manages to gut through by a few votes.
2008 was a big one.
He fought off detective Gene Etchison – for the second time.
They didn’t actually fight, but allies of the two men did throw punches.
Lyons’ guy is said to have received the worst of it.
But Lyons prevailed on Election Day.
That year, he met one of his running mates when they both got held up together.
Their mutual feeling was something along the lines of, we’ve got to do better than this.
Etchison lost to Lyons by 82 votes in 2004, and by 24 votes four years later.
The longtime ally of state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), Lyons repeatedly fought off the forces of then-Mayor Wayne Smith only to have to hole up for a heart transplant in 2010, at precisely the time he was politically ready to challenge Smith citywide.
He lost that election. But lived.
“I never doubted for a minute that I was going to be ok,” he said.
He weathered another close one in 2014, fending off Richard Williams by six votes.
“That was a tough race,” he said.
Probably his toughest.
He shrugs it all off now with a gratified smile.
His goal was helping people.
He’s still doing that, he said, as the council president and ally of Mayor Tony Vauss, who picked off Smith in 2014 and easily won reelection last year.
With the help of First Vice President Renee C. Burgess, InsiderNJ caught up with Lyons today at a local diner, to talk about his book, his life in Irvington politics, and 2020 politics.
“Democrats have to become totally united in an effort to elect a Democrat,” said Lyons, considering the developing presidential landscape as CNN broadcast the Cohen hearing on the other side of the lunch counter. “Right now everyone wants to be a presence because Trump is president and everyone thinks they can win.”
Lyons fears too many green senators jumping into the fray and he also fears the inevitable divisions in a bloody primary.
“I don’t want us to get so involved in infighting that we forget what the actual goal is, and I see a scenario here where we’re going to be fighting each other,” Lyons said. “Trump has made a lot of mistakes. He has divided this country – I mean total division. We’ve always had our issues, of course, but some of the Republican politicians now, Trump allies, are saying ‘We can make whites hate the blacks more than they already do.’ And in this atmosphere, the message has to be unity. We have to get back to America being America. I don’t blame Trump for racism, but I do blame him for fostering racism.”
Strong Southern women raised Lyons.
He sees women animated in politics during the Trump era as a big plus for Democrats mobilizing to take the White House.
“I like the influx of females because in my experience, most females want to do the right thing,” said the council president. “These women who won congressional seats last year, they ran for the right reasons.”
It won’t be easy.
“There’s no doubt in my mind Trump’s dumb, but he’s shrewd in the way of getting people to buy into things, including division, so the Democratic message has to be inclusive,” he said.
That was Hillary Clinton’s message in 2016.
But she wasn’t granular enough, said Lyons, who’s always eked out his elections with door-to-door, eyeball-to-eyeball contact.
Clinton was always too rarified.
The local Democrat said he has not yet decided on a candidate to back, but at this juncture he likes Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. He’ll be watching, though, as always from the streets of Irvington, and will be looking for that person most willing to fight door-to-door, and out of that, most able to piece the party together, from the street level up.
For more information on Council President Lyons’ book, Ward Councilman: Confessions of an Honest Politician, please check back with InsiderNJ.